Propaganda Practices in the USA

ARTICLE: Wendell Potter, formerly a propagandist for various avaricious and venal corporations, ‘fesses up and reveals the prevarication, lying, deception, and obfuscation of the industries that pick your pocket every day. His ‘Deadly Spin’ opens the playbook used by corrupt companies, insufferable industries, and the GOP.

Wendell Potter has a hair-raising tale to tell. It is a story of lies, obfuscation, disingenuousness, and greed. Lots and lots of greed. It is also an account of how and why you have been paying too much for health insurance (or were forced to go without it). What he has to say about lying for a living is interesting and instructive, but the real importance of his book, Deadly Spin, is in revealing some of the tricks of his trade, the knowledge of which enables us to fight back.

Deadly Spin bookFor those of you who pay attention to the copyright dates on books, Deadly Spin came out in 2010 and I confess to missing it at the time. But nothing has changed in terms of the techniques of trickery that are so well-used by corporations — and by the GOP senators and representatives whose votes they purchase — therefore the book is still valuable, powerful, and necessary for anyone with a passing interest in truth or justice.

Potter’s milieu was public relations, or PR, and this is how he explains that dark art: “If advertisers are the hidden persuaders, PR practitioners are the ‘invisible persuaders,’ to borrow the term British author David Michie used in the title of his 1998 book about the growing influence of unseen PR advisers in the United Kingdom.”


Much of the book reads as a confession, as in the section where Potter writes about seeing MSNBC’s Tamron Hall interview Zach Wamp, Republican representative from Tennessee, who vomited out the standard bile about healthcare reform being “a fast march towards socialism” as well as the insidious lies about wealth redistribution. Potter writes:

As I listened to Wamp’s rant, I knew exactly where he’d gotten his talking points: from me. He was using the same misleading, intentionally provocative, and xenophobic talking points that I had helped write while serving on the Strategic Communications Advisory Committee of the insurers’ biggest trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). We PR types had created those talking points, with help from language and polling experts, and given them to the industry’s lobbyists with instructions to get them into the hands of every “friendly” member of Congress. Most of the friendly ones were Republicans, and most were friendly because they had received a lot of money over the years in campaign contributions from insurance company executives and their political action committees.

Attacking Troublesome Truths

There is an entire chapter devoted to the attempts to belittle and negate the realities in Sicko, one of Michael Moore’s documentaries. Each of the 14 pages, entitled “The Campaign Against Sicko,” reads like notes from a ministry of the Third Reich, with references to “fear-based propaganda campaigns,” the “need for fear-mongering,” and “the effort to restore Americans’ fear of government-run health care.”

That last phrase is instructive because it exposes one of the rightwing nut job (RWNJ) techniques for keeping health insurance costs artificially high, the mislabeling of a much-needed single-payer system as a “government takeover” of healthcare. For some reason, that phrase scares people. Well, it scares ignorant people, but ignorant people vote and there are millions of them. (As an aside, it should be noted that fifty-nine million people recently voted for the most untruthful presidential candidate in the history of our country. As I said, there are a lot of ignorant people in this nation.) There is an entire industry dedicated to coming up with words and phrases that scare stupid Americans into voting against the best interests of all Americans — and coincidentally voting in ways that lead to more profits for corporations.

Big business is often able to harm America through manipulation and propaganda but they also receive a lot of help from RWNJs. For example, “…California lawmakers had twice approved bills creating a single-payer system in the state. Had Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger not vetoed both bills, California would have been the first state in the nation to ban private insurance companies and operate its own government-run health care system, like many of those depicted in Sicko.”

The Front Fraud

Creating “front groups” that appear to be grass roots organizations is a favorite ploy of modern propaganda. Many of these are outed in Deadly Spin, including: Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, American Energy Alliance, Americans Against Food Taxes, Americans for Prosperity, Campaign for an American Solution, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare, Coalition for Medicare Choices, FreedomWorks, Health Benefits Coalition, Health Care America, National Coalition on Benefits, National Smokers Alliance, Partisan Project, and Stop Too Big to Fail.

All of those sham organizations have nice-sounding names but all are fronts for corporate interests that put profits over people and income over integrity. Note: those are simply the ones Potter outs in his book; it is by no means even a smidgeon of the complete list of the pseudo groups that conservative corporate flacks have created with the aid of batcrapcrazy billionaires and know-nothings like Tea Party members and most rank-and-file republicans.

Tricks ‘n’ Tips

Even if you only read a few pages of the book, you will be able to come away armed with some information that can help when you’re confronted by the pontificating and bloviating of the GOP and their squads of treacherous parrots. This is especially true of the litany of “rhetorical tricks” compiled by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (1937-1942). Their list of the ways politicians and PR flacks fool you are all laid out with easy-to-follow explanations.

Shocking Examples

Like Michael Moore’s movies and other investigative reports on Current TV and MSNBC, Deadly Spin also contains some heart-wrenching sequences, including children being repeatedly denied needed healthcare services even when their families held insurance policies. There is also a chapter that reveals the scandalous contrast between uninsured Americans lining up in the rain for crude free clinic emergency care in old horse stalls, and the multi-million-dollar mansion being built for the retired chairman of CIGNA insurance.

But the primary problem with the USA acquiescing to corporations and their bought-and-paid-for Congress is this:

Unlike developed countries that took deliberate action at their highest levels to create the national health care systems they currently enjoy, America largely forfeited the development of its system to private, financially motivated interests from the very beginning. The result is that universal health care is available today in every industrialized nation except one — ours.

Reagan’s Mendacity

Crusades of deceit and deception are carried on by PR professionals and bribe-happy politicians at every level and have been going on for decades. Potter writes about “Ronald Reagan’s participation in the American Medical Association’s famous propaganda campaign against early Medicare legislation in 1961.”

Potter’s description of the duplicity of the recorded “Ronald Regan Speaks Out Against SOCIALIZED MEDICINE” is funny whenever it is not so sad. But Reagan began as a B-movie actor, quickly became a corporate shill, then sank into the Alzheimer’s that shrouded his every move as president, so perhaps his is a legacy of mental illness rather than the pure evil it appears to be.

The Reagan shuck-and-jive appears in the section of the book detailing how “socialized medicine” began as a conservative idea that was used to combat the rise of Communism. All of which will be fascinating to anyone interested in history and politics, and it certainly shows the moral flexibility of the rightwing as they grab anything that helps them at the moment whether it is good for America or not. (Hmm, that may rank with “Math You Do as a Republican to Make Yourself Feel Good” as a GOP themeline.)

Horrid History

Instead of the healthcare reform sought by the Clinton administration, the American public got shafted as voters were frightened by the threat of government bureaucrats stepping between them and their doctors. The irony is pointed out by Potter: “What Americans got instead was private insurance companies doing exactly the same thing.”

Health insurance companies have used their enormous size to engage in anticompetitive behavior, rig the system to impose unaffordable premium increases, and deliver massive and growing profits for themselves and their shareholders. As premiums have skyrocketed, insurers have cut benefits, increased out-of-pocket costs for workers, and shed millions of enrollees who can’t afford insurance. Americans have been left to pay more while getting less and less.


In straightforward prose, Potter slowly but surely constructs a metaphorical coffin for anyone connected with health insurance companies, including their republican supporters. Fact after fact, example after example, and story after story display the perfidy of these creatures. The way CIGNA contributed to the death of teenage Nataline Sarkisyan, for example, is harrowing.

The disparity between the parsimony of healthcare payments and the gargantuan remuneration to CEOs is shocking and the mini-biographies of whores like Karen Ignagni (a top Washington lobbyist for the health insurance cabal) are instructive. The stories of the ways that fear-mongering campaigns are utilized to coerce politicians and paralyze the public are extremely helpful and are too numerous to quote here.

Con Media

The repeated lies in the conservative-controlled media are part of the problem. (Well, the gullibility of the American people is really to blame — the dishonesties in the media and in GOP speeches wouldn’t work without such stupid audiences.) Tall tales about Barack Obama influence a lot of piss-poor GOP legislation (or their absurd blockage of legislation). As Potter writes: “His opponents portray him as a ‘socialist’ and a ‘radical,’ but in truth Obama is not even a hard-core liberal. He is a moderate centrist who often leans to the left.” Taken in context of the money and mendacity aligned against him, Obama’s baby steps toward decent healthcare in the USA is truly monumental.

Health insurers and other special interests opened their pocketbooks to frustrate reform and protect huge profit streams. Political front groups flourished, nurtured with millions of dollars from shadowy corporate sponsors, including insurers. Powerful images and words were unleashed. Antireform operatives concocted myths, libeled Democratic leaders, used racist slogans and pictures, and questioned the patriotism of people supporting a just health care system. Fox News eagerly broadcast these antics and messages — morning, noon, and night. And, perhaps most important, the health insurance industry showered members of Congress with political contributions — and overwhelmed them with thousands of lobbyists to push its propaganda.

Facts for the Fight

The profession of deception hurts people, sometimes quite literally. Fighting back requires facts. Not just facts about the issues but also information about the distortions used in the GOP’s voracity and avarice. So it is exciting that Potter includes the tobacco industry’s tactics, methods, ploys, and practices for pulling the wool over your eyes. Oh, and he includes some of the oil industry’s schemes as well.

He knows what every PR pro knows, that the media has given up its responsibilities to the public, which leaves politicians and corporations with the license to befoul the air with stories, fabrications, distortions, and deceptions.

Today, we have arrived at a precarious moment. The number of credible news organizations, particularly newspapers, is declining. At the same time, the number of people, the amount of power, and the level of funding behind public relations efforts are greater than ever, and increasing. Americans are confronted daily — even hourly — with the daunting and growing challenge of deciphering truth from spin.

Potter reaffirms what all of us in PR know: there are three ways to combat facts in any media campaign of confusion and collusion: One: deny that the problem even exists (“American corporations are not avoiding taxes”); Two: say the horrible fact is actually a positive thing (“Unwanted invasive ultrasound procedures are good for women”); and Three: admit that there’s a problem but claim it’s insolvable (“There will always be industrial pollution so there’s no point in regulating air quality or water quality”).


Even after a career as a highly-paid creative flunky for some of the most disgusting people in business, Wendell Potter is an optimist:

I believe that one day the United States really will have one of the finest and most equitable health care systems in the world, and that insurance companies and banks and oil companies — in fact, all big corporations — will ultimately become more socially responsible.

Why does he write that? He actually believes in us! Consider:

It will take time and vigilance, but we can force even the biggest and most powerful corporations to be more honest and transparent in the way they do business and in the way they treat us, their customers, and in the way they treat our planet.

Wow, dare we hope he’s correct? Well, perhaps . . . Maybe if we all started working a bit for the common good, just as when we fought back against SOPA. Or more recently when we fought back against Republican voter suppression.

Collectively, if we all took just a few moments away from watching fake-reality shows and used the time to put pressure on our elected officials to Do Something, then the people might prevail over the corporations. If we simply demonstrate the will power, perhaps we can combat the dingbats and RWNJs and Southern state congressional demagogues and crazy billionaires and phony news channel programs and the blizzard of PR shoveled out by corporations. There’s a towering line-up of goons against us, but no one said it would be easy.

Bottle Battle

Lying for a living may be no problem for republicans but it takes a toll on people who have decency in their soul. As Potter writes during a confessional moment in the book, “I started questioning whether for-profit insurers really did play a constructive role in our health care system, as I insisted publicly… I found that alcohol helped to keep those thoughts at bay.”

Now that he’s speaking out against the lies of the corporations and their GOP stooges, Potter can go back to safer recreational uses of alcohol instead of self-medicating his way to momentary oblivion. Welcome back to decency, Wendell. Hope it’s okay to say this: A toast to your health!


DEADLY SPIN: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans by Wendell Potter. Bloomsbury Press, 288 pages, ISBN 9781608192816, $26.00.

This original article is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on – all commercial and reprint rights reserved.